The Accessibility Cookbook: A Recipe for Disaster
~ 12 November 2007 ~
It’s one thing to lecture on and study the topic of accessibility, but it’s an entirely different thing to see it first hand.
Aaron Cannon, blind since birth, is an interaction designer with whom I have the privilege of working. Not only is Aaron witty and intelligent, he’s also pretty knowledgeable about accessibility and even kicks out some pretty good code, too. True, Aaron is probably more adept than the average blind web user, but his first-hand experience with accessibility and the web puts him in a position to offer practical advice for welcoming disabled users.
It is this very idea of practical accessibility about which Aaron writes in his article, The Accessibility Cookbook: A Recipe for Disaster. Drawing parallels between cooking bread and creating accessible websites, Aaron reminds us that things aren’t as convoluted (or ideal) as we make them out to be:
And so, the myth is perpetuated that bread making is a very complex process, the inner-workings of which can only be understood by those bakers with a doctorate in breadology. They forget that our ancestors (a few of whom had to be at least slightly dumber than they are) made bread on a regular basis with no problems.
It has been my experience that many people who learn about accessibility are led down a similar path as would-be bread bakers. They are handed a recipe and told, ‘This is what you are to do, and if you don’t do this exactly, those crazy disability advocates will come after you with their blood-thirsty lawyers.’ They are told things like, ‘mark headings up as such,’ and ‘put skip-to-content links at the top of pages.’ What all too often is not mentioned is why.
Just last week Aaron dispelled a common misperception for me personally as he reviewed my code from a recent project, finding I had provided alt text for nearly every image and icon on the page. What Aaron articulates in his article is roughly the point he articulated with me:
… it is a common misconception that every image on a page should include an alt attribute with a verbose description. In actuality, only images with important information should be provided with descriptions, and those should be as brief as possible. For example, if there was an image which said ‘50% off this week on all orders over $50’, then that should clearly be provided with alternative text. However, if there was a picture of a man using a particular product, I’m really not interested in hearing ‘picture of a man looking pleased as punch to be using the new ultra-lite USB hair drier,’ or worse, ‘picture of a man.’
Yes, every image should include the alt attribute (even if the value is blank), but Aaron’s point is that he need not hear attribute values read by his screen reader if it doesn’t add value to the experience or content.
At any rate, the real takeaway for me from Aaron’s article is to be practical when addressing accessibility, bulletproofing, SEO, or any other technique we read about or hear at conferences:
So, in short, learn all you can about the why of accessibility, and then go do your best. Most of the time, it will probably be good enough, and almost certainly better than if you just blindly follow a recipe.
(In addition to the book Aaron recommends, also consider Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design by Shawn Henry, which is replete with first-hand knowledge and recommendations.)
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